Hunting is the master behavior pattern of the human species.
The Alert Man
Until about ten thousand years ago (an iota of evolution) we were all hunters and foragers, living in daily intimacy with all surrounding life. That evolutionary period of competitive success and brain enlargement, achieved through organization and the use of tools, has profoundly affected the engrams (neural connections) of our psyche. The brain of our forebears rapidly enlarged over a relatively short time. By 100,000 years ago that hallmark of our species, “a disproportionately enlarged brain size,” was found in fossil cranial cavities. It is small wonder then that hunting stirs deep recesses in our consciousness and brings up a sharp awareness of this connection. In those thousands of centuries when modern Homo developed, alertness was a prime necessity, for both attack and defense. That awareness can still result in a vibrant state where all senses become more acute, and time and space merge into a feeling of unity.
In his Meditations on Hunting, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset describes the state of awareness in what we know as the Hunter’s Trance.
He (the hunter) does not look tranquilly in one determined direction, sure beforehand that the game will pass in front of him. The hunter knows that he does not know what is going to happen, and that is one of the greatest attractions of his occupation. Thus he needs to prepare an attention of a different and superior style--an attention that does not consist in riveting itself in the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and avoiding inattentiveness. It is a “universal” attention, which does not inscribe itself in any point and tries to be on all points. There is a magnificent term for this, one that still conserves all the zest of vivacity and imminence: alertness. The hunter is the alert man.
“Not presuming anything,” as we shall see, is part of apophasis, the emptying of the mind. Ortega y Gasset associated the development of the capacities of observation and alertness in the ancient hunter to the evolution of the intellect. The sensory processes among many traditional hunters are, to us, extraordinary. From those sentient qualities arise a deep understanding of the world around them, qualities that at some time, long ago, we “civilized” human beings must have also possessed.
Part of this knowledge, acquired by Ortega’s archetypal alert man, is not just the mystical connection with his quarry but also with his environment. In another example of the hunter’s trance, a friend told me of this experience when stalking Wapiti elk in the Sawatch Range of central Colorado.
“One day in May I set out at dawn, alone, to track a herd of elk up into the foothills of Mount Princeton. There was still plenty of snow and muddy terrain to follow the herds migrating to upland pasture. I came across fresh tracks of several elk, including one bull. The morning was bright and sunny with a slight wind in my face, assuring me of getting a reasonably close approach to my quarry. After perhaps an hour of slow and careful tracking, I came out on a long glade, fifty yards wide. If the elk were nearby they would detect my crossing the snowy and slushy meadow. It remained for me to be completely still and pay complete attention to the opposite hillside. I felt now their presence and somehow knew that they felt mine. As I stood there, the sense of time remarkably changed. What seemed like minutes I found later to be over an hour. At the same moment an intense feeling of the clarity of the scene swept over me. All my senses seemed to sharpen to an exquisite razor’s edge. I heard the tiniest sounds of distant streams and rustling leaves as if magnified in a celestial amplifier. Everything seemed closer to me and I felt, amazingly, a sort of merger of myself with everything, a sense of belonging. I was connected with everything in that panorama, the grass, trees, rocks, insects, birds, the elk that I knew were quietly moving uphill, out of my sight. I felt a great rush of emotion, a joy of being alive, the chance to exist along with everything else. I will never forget that day.”
The hunter’s unfocussed alertness, his trance, is similar to the attentive form of meditation practiced in Zen Buddhism. The word trance means precisely what the Latin roots say; trans = “across” and ire = “go,” in sum, “to move across” or “to pass over” the object. The Oxford English Dictionary goes on to define trance as “a state of mental abstraction from external things.” The hunter, however, is certainly not disconnected perceptually from “external things.” His whole being is directed toward a quarry, he is the alert man with “universal attention,” unfocused, aware of all yet somehow filtering out what is extraneous or irrelevant. The blocking or diversion of those external and internal signals sharpens his senses. This sensitivity to each subtle sign of nature is a direct precursor to intellectual awareness, and this state of mind is not unique to the hunter. As will be seen, it is a phenomenon common to many who search. It is, as Ortega y Gasset maintains, a state of mind that is the ground for the creative process. The external world as perceived by the hunter is drawn into his inner vision, which leads to a feeling of union with all that is outside, in fact, with the cosmos itself.
The Zen practice of shikan-taza resembles the Hunter’s Trance in that the mind is brought to a heightened state of awareness, intensely involved in the object of its attention. Yet simultaneously the participant can be peculiarly detached, but centered into the ground of his being. This acute sensitivity of awareness lies at the heart of a mystical state from which energy can flow into extraordinary physical and mental achievement.